I AM LOVE: The Film Babble Blog Review

I AM LOVE (Dir. Luca Guadagnino, 2009)

There sure is a lot of opulent dinner party preparation in this Italian drama. We see servants prepare food, line up plates, arrange seating, etc. under the supervision of Tilda Swinton as a Russian woman who married into the wealthy Recchi family, yet appears to be far from satisfied. Swinton’s husband, Pippo Delbono, is distant and only business minded in the face of his father’s (Gabriele Ferzetti) declaration that he is passing his textile manufacturing enterprise to not only his son, but also his grandson (Flavio Parenti).

This announcement is made, of course, at one of many formal dinner parties that dominate the first half of the film. A chef friend (Edoardo Gabbriellini) to Parenti enters the picture and sweeps Swinton off her feet with a sumptuous dish of prawns. This scene tries to be sublime, but it borders on the ridiculous – a shaft of light falls upon Swinton as she begins to eat, the music swells, and there are extreme close-ups of her face as the taste sensation overwhelms her.

On a trip to Sanremo to visit her art student daughter (Alba Rohrwacher), who her mother knows is a lesbian, but is keeping her secret, Swinton runs into Gabbriellini and they begin an affair. Their budding romance has tragic consequences when it’s revealed at, yep, another fancy dinner gathering. After flirting with the mainstream and winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (for “Michael Clayton” in 2008) it’s nice to see that Swinton can come back to her art house home turf, but despite her character craft this is a overbearing self consciously artsy film with little soul.

There is a sex scene that about sums it all up – Swinton and Gabbriellini make love in the woods, her pale skin (also surprising to see she will still do nude scenes – most of the time Oscars bring an end to that) intertwining with his as the camera cuts constantly away to the nature surrounding them. Shots of insects and flowers are interspliced between shots of their carnal desires. It’s all a pretentious show-off that has no ambitions beyond empty imagery.

I AM LOVE is sure to delight many lovers of Foreign and indie films for the same reasons it didn’t appeal to this reviewer. Its aesthetics alone will be enough to satisfy some movie goers, but the lack of pure emotional impact will definitely disturb others.

Director Guadagnino made a film that desperately wants us to feel for these people, take in their lush environs, and luxuriate in their passions. Yet after 2 hours of all the luscious shots of well prepared delicacies that these people live off of, it was difficult to relate or empathize – the only real thing I felt was hunger.

More later…

Are Critic’s Jeers Of The New Jarmusch Joint Justified?


(Dir. Jim Jarmusch, 2009)

“The best films are like dreams you’re never really sure you had.”

– Blonde (Tilda Swinton)

With a rating of 40%, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is Jim Jarmusch’s lowest rated film on the Rotten Tomatometer. Rotten Tomatoes’ consensus is that it’s “a minimalist exercise in not much of anything…a tedious viewing experience with little reward.” The venerable Roger Ebert, who usually has a more positive slant than most critics, gave the film half a star – which is also the lowest rating he’s given for a Jarmusch film. Ebert appraises the filmmaker’s motive: “I think the point is that if you strip a story down to its bare essentials, you will have very little left.”

So, with such painfully poor reviews to go by I went into THE LIMITS OF CONTROL with very low expectations. Maybe that helped because while I found it slow and fairly impenetrable I was never bored and the imagery mixed with the mood have stayed with me ever since. Let’s take a look at the plot:

Isaach De Bankolé credited only as “Lone Man” is a man on a mission in Madrid. We are never told this mission, only given cryptic clues. In between lying on his bed in his hotel room (much in the same manner Jarmusch filmed Bill Murray in his previous film BROKEN FLOWERS sitting on his couch doing nothing as the day light disappears), doing some form of Yoga, and visiting art galleries, he sits at outdoor cafés and orders two espressos in separate cups.

It’s all part of an unidentified plan – various contacts (including John Hurt, Gael García Bernal, and Tilda Swinton) approach his table and exchange matchboxes with him. They always begin the process by asking: “¿Usted no habla Español, verdad?” (translated: “You don’t speak Spanish, right?”) He nods “no” and then they alternately speak to him about different subjects. With one it’s music, with another it’s science, and most notably with Swinton it’s film.

Swinton references Orson Welles’ THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI remarking that she believes it’s the only film in which Rita Hayworth played a blonde. As Swinton is wearing a platinum blonde wig for the first time in her career the moment is undeniably meta. This quality is also felt later in the film when while walking the streets sees a movie poster featuring a likeness of Swinton in the same get-up.

De Bankolé is trading matchboxes full of diamonds for ones with a small note inside. The notes have numbers listed on them and after a quick study he eats them and washes them down with one of his espressos. He returns to his hotel room at one point to find a woman (Paz de la Huerta) laying on his bed wearing only glasses. In as few words as possible he tells her he doesn’t engage in sex while on the job but since he just appears to be passing time until meeting the next contact this is as odd and mysterious as everything else in the film.

Aided by a map of that he destroys by burning, not eating, after reading, De Bankolé finally reaches his destination – a heavily guarded compound in which Bill Murray resides. Murray, only credited as “American” (nobody in this film is properly named) is a rich businessman who spouts out a critique of current society as De Bankolé prepares to kill him using a tightly pulled guitar string.

What the title means in all of this I have no idea – my attempts to form a theory have come up with no satisfactory results. I’m also perplexed by the vagueness of the narrative (perhaps Ebert is right about the point of it) and what anybody’s motivations are. Somehow though, these quibbles fade while the tone and beautiful photography of cinematographer Christopher Doyle remain in my mind.

This is the kind of movie in which you can agree to a large degree with the criticism heaped onto it but at the same time get something vital out of the experience. I can certainly understand reviewers wanting to warn average movie-going folks about enduring such an arty exercise when they’d probably be happier with more conventional fare but films like this shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.

Since his 80’s indie incarnation, Jarmusch has been an intriguing filmmaker who makes mesmerizing art out of the spare rhythms and meditative moods of his characters. Here he gives us next to nothing to go on about his lead, yet De Bankolé gives a serenely stoical (there’s only one instance in which I can recall him smiling) performance that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. A transfixing tone that I still can’t shake makes this a film I believe will be greatly re-evaluated in the years to come.

So to answer in more concrete terms the question posed in this post’s heading – I wouldn’t claim that there is no justification in the majority of the critics’ pans, nor would I say that there’s more to it than meets the eye. What I would say is that THE LIMITS OF CONTROL is a worthwhile watch for those not looking for the cozy comfort of meaning. It’s the sort of unruly cinema that frees one from meaning, and that usually takes some folks some time to catch up with.

More later…

Benjamin Button’s Back Pages

“Ah, but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”

– Bob Dylan (“My Back Pages” 1964)


“I’m seven but I look much older” Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) says in his early old age upon meeting somebody new. He is, of course, not kidding. He was born a wrinkled wizened man in his 80’s, albeit the size of a tiny baby, so his curious case is that he is aging backwards. His tale is told through the recollections via his letters and writings from the deathbed of a former lover (Cate Blanchett) to her daughter (Julia Ormond) while the hard winds and rain of Hurricane Katrina pound her hospital window. He appears through the help of seamless CGI with the face of Pitt grafted on a child’s (or little person or such) body as he is brought up by New Orleans nursing home caretakers (Taraji P. Henson and Mahershalalhashbaz Ali) after being abandoned by his ashamed wealthy father (Jason Flemying).

Adapted from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1921 short story, the tale has a familiar FORREST GUMP-esque sweep which isn’t surprising being that it was co-written by the same screenwriter – Eric Roth. As Button grows younger he falls for Daisy, first played by Elle Fanning (Dakota’s sister), whose grandmother lives in the nursing home. He goes to sea working on a tugboat (again GUMP) under the wing of crusty Captain Mike (Jared Harris) writing his love at home from every possible port. He has an affair with Tilda Swinton as a married British woman in Russia, fights in World War II, and inherits his father’s fortune all while still pining for Daisy who has grown up to be an elegant Cate Blanchett. Their relationship is obviously doomed or at least destined for extreme sadness but they still give it a go.

The narrative is handled so delicately that it’s as if it might break. As our hero gets younger the film seems to lose its already fragile grasp on the character. A sense of whimsy flows through that’s so light and airy that the film feels at times like it might float away. Also the digital trickery can often distract. The early scenes with Button largely crafted by CGI effect, while flawless executed, are hard to embrace because the gimmick overwhelms the emotional response. When Button appears to Daisy as a younger than he is in real life Brad Pitt by way of the marvels of modern make-up, she tells him “you look perfect” which is true but again the scene barely registers as anything but a pretty picture.

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON is a lavish over-sized coffee table book of a movie. The accompanying text may be sorely lacking but it’s a visual feast and much to its credit it doesn’t feel like it’s just shy of 3 hours long. Being a fan of much of Fincher’s previous work (especially FIGHT CLUB and ZODIAC) I found this to be his most blatant exercise of style over substance and I’m not forgetting PANIC ROOM. From the first frame that depicts the Paramount logo rendered in shirt buttons to the fleeting final shots, there is much to admire about this movie if not fully love. Still, TCCOBB is a worthwhile watch even as a technical triumph over an emotional one and it’s definitely got a few deserved awards in its near future. I did actually get emotional a few times for it but I yearned for more joy to be involved; a poignant pathos seemed to be all it was going for. Though, in these troubled times that we all are desperately trying to outgrow, maybe that’s just about right.

More later…